Is The Hours Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Is The Hours Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Is The Hours Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Jan. 6 2003 1:20 PM

To the Madhouse

What would Virginia Woolf have thought of The Hours? Not much.

Nicole Kidman in The Hours
Kidman as Woolf: Don't call her a nut job

Virginia Woolf was deeply ambitious: "[O]ne of my vile vices is jealousy, of other writers' fame," she wrote in her diary. So, some part of her—the vain, competitive part—would love to know that she has made it to the big screen, complete with her long nose, in the new film adaptation of Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel The Hours. Both novel and movie pay homage to Woolf's modernist masterpiece Mrs. Dalloway, about World War I's transformation of English society. The film has been widely acclaimed for its fidelity to the spirit of Woolf's work; Stephen Holden wrote in the New York Times, "All these brooding, complicated people are prototypical Woolfian figures blessed and afflicted with the same feverish imaginations, perplexing ambiguities."

The problem is that Woolf would hate the movie, which depicts her as a jaw-clenched nut job and designates its neurotic latter-day protagonists her spiritual heirs. She certainly wouldn't award it many points for style: Woolf's extended, associative sentences spoke to the fragmentation of a civilization; when the film cuts between Julianne Moore cracking eggs in the 1950s and Meryl Streep loudly cracking eggs 50 years later, not much more is suggested than the enduring popularity of cooking. What would distress Woolf most, though, is the film's sentimentality about women and suffering and its suggestion that the abiding truth of Woolf's life and work was her madness.

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The movie chronicles the lives of three women, all of whom are plagued by depression and an inability to get on with the chores or the servants or the party arrangements. There's Woolf herself, at the time of writing Mrs. Dalloway; Clarissa Vaughan, a contemporary version of Woolf's heroine Clarissa Dalloway; and Laura Brown, a housewife in Los Angeles in the 1950s. Near the opening of the film, we see each in bed, looking weary and pale. A minute in the sun, you feel, might permanently scar them.

The film takes these characters' anomie and suicidal impulses as a given; this is a world in which  all female melancholy is primal and contextless. Take the character of Laura Brown, the depressed housewife played by Julianne Moore. In Cunningham's novel, her unhappiness derives from her sense of social duty—she has married a local war hero in a patriotic contribution of her individual freedom. Brown spends her hours baking cakes instead of writing or painting, we understand, because she feels bound to community—to a world larger than her own destiny. In the movie, she seems simply to have been born in a funk.

Consider the crucial scene in which Laura Brown retreats to a hotel room. In the book, she does so in order to read—and in her luxuriant privacy, she abstractly considers suicide, the way an upset child might threaten to run away from home. The movie turns this momentary retreat into the act of a terminally depressed woman: Brown deposits a teary, hysterical child at the baby sitter's and checks into a hotel in order to kill herself; while preparing to do so, she reads some of Mrs. Dalloway. The difference is profound; the movie sees Brown's relationship to Mrs. Dalloway not as an access to solitary independence, but as a suicide-enabler that, happily, fails.

The contemporary character, Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), is the one we're supposed to relate to most. Like Clarissa Dalloway, her predecessor, she is haunted by an earlier love affair; hers was with Richard, the AIDS-stricken poet for whom she is throwing a party. But unlike Clarissa Dalloway, who exemplified Woolf's critique of a masculinist imperial British society that left women little room for unconventional decision-making, Vaughan's character speaks to no larger social problem. She is simply a psychiatrist's Playboy bunny: a wealthy New Yorker who has been able to make the kind of choices—Vaughan is a lesbian with an adopted daughter—that were never available to women like Dalloway. Vaughan is nonetheless so obsessed with the rhetoric of personal anxiety and of relating her bumps and bruises that she'll never realize she is mostly happy with her way of life. The movie—again, unlike the novel—sets us up to think that Clarissa's relationship with Sally is permanently compromised. And yet it ends as the two enjoy a Snow White kiss of renewal, delivered from the barren terrain of disappointment by the death of an innocent—a Christian message Woolf pointedly avoided in Mrs. Dalloway.

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Then there's Woolf herself: Because the movie begins with her suicide, then cuts to an earlier period, the Woolf sequences are inflected with a sense of her impending doom—with the inevitable gravity of that stone in her pocket. (No wonder her face is so long, you think.) Throughout, Kidman's Woolf seems as wired and hopped-up as someone who's spent too much time with Hunter S. Thompson—as if her internal life were a series of freeze-frame images as dire and apocalyptic as a bad acid trip. We watch her in a shapeless dress, scratching away at her novel; dazedly wandering the streets of a London suburb and whispering to herself; and dreamily running her hands over her writing pens, like a blind prophet looking for the truth in the faces of others. With the exception of a strong scene between Woolf and her husband, Leonard, arguing on a train platform, the film fails to show the wit, social engagement, or satiric acuity for which Woolf was known. It becomes, as the New York Times put it, an account of "the savage inner war waged by a brilliant mind against a system of faulty wiring that transmits a searing, crazy static into her brain." In other words, A Beautiful Mind for English majors.

However, Woolf killed herself 17 years after she wrote Mrs. Dalloway. During the period that she wrote the book—the one the movie concentrates on—her work was largely uninterrupted by bouts of extreme madness. Leonard was more of an enabler than the jail keeper he seems in the movie, and Woolf was as full of levity as she was of lethargy and coldness. She produced dozens of book reviews and, after finishing Dalloway, wrote several novels, including major works such as To the Lighthouse. A typical diary entry is full of the steadiness of work: "The day before, Thursday, I had to put semicolons to my Hen James article while talking to Ralph over my shoulder and then rush to catch a train to Hampstead to dine with Brett & Gertler." In fact, a close examination of Woolf's journals from this time suggests that some of her "breakdowns" were, in part, an excuse to retire from society in order to finish a novel or other work without paying the price exacted by society (or her own psyche) for willfully retreating from it: "It is always a question whether I wish to avoid these glooms. In part they … have a psychological interest which the usual state of … enjoying lacks," she wrote in 1926. There's no denying that Woolf was plagued by depression. But she was also, as Leonard Woolf put it, "always terribly sane in three-quarters of her mind."

In the end, Mrs. Dalloway is not really about suicide, or madness: Although the suicide of a shell-shocked war veteran is the novel's most overtly dramatic scene, Woolf later considered taking this thread out altogether because she thought it didn't connect to the rest of the novel. Mrs. Dalloway is primarily a picture of a compromised society, of life in a city radically touched by war, in which Woolf reveals our everyday dishonesties by showing the unpleasant compromises made by others. The Hours, on the other hand, revels in death and sickness and refuses to face loss in its sternest form. It promotes the hoary notion that illness gives us depth: Death—Woolf's, or Richard's—helps us all to "value life more," as the Woolf character in the movie puts it. The artists are sacrificed so that the rest of us ordinary (but sensitive!) people can live better. How extremely fortunate for us.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate’s culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at the New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother’s death, is now out in paperback.